the last few days, we’ve seen a series of grassroots victories that
prove we’re not stuck with Big Oil’s plan to foist dangerous fossil fuel
infrastructure on communities across the country.
Just last week, TransCanada (of Keystone XL infamy) confirmed that it is dropping a marine crude oil export terminal in Quebec due to environmental concerns, a move that will delay the target opening date for the massive Energy East tar sands pipeline by at least two years.
Across the continent, Big Oil was also dealt two blows against its
attempts to import extreme crudes into California by rail. In the face
of strong community opposition, midstream oil company WesPac has abandoned its plan to build a rail terminal that would have brought dirty crude oil into the San Francisco Bay Area.
A few years ago, WesPac proposed a rail and marine terminal
that would transport 242,000 barrels per day of crude oil–nearly a
third of the capacity of Keystone XL–through Pittsburg, CA, a small
community of 60,000 residents and then on to Bay Area refineries. The
problems with WesPac’s proposal are myriad: it would expose Pittsburg’s
population, largely communities of color and low-income communities, to
the risks of exploding trains and increased air pollution, and it would
require a massive investment in fossil fuel infrastructure at a time
when we should be moving toward clean energy solutions.
The project was so ill-conceived that, following comments by NRDC and
others, the California Attorney General wrote a letter finding “significant legal problems”
with the project’s environmental review documents. Accordingly, the
city decided to put the project on hold and revisit its environmental
review process. That’s where things stood for over a year, until last
week, when WesPac announced that it would drop the rail terminal aspect of the project altogether.
As community and environmental advocates have repeatedly pointed out, oil trains pose serious risks–risks that were highlighted by a series of fiery accidents over the last few weeks. (Notably, some recent accidents have involved Canadian tar sands crude,
in addition to a bevy of dangerous mishaps involving North Dakota’s
Bakken crude, which has long been known to be highly volatile and has
been the culprit in most oil train disasters.)
This win in Pittsburg follows a recent decision by another Bay Area city, Benicia, to withdraw and revise its environmental review documents for a proposed crude-by-rail terminal at Valero’s Benicia refinery. As NRDC and others, including the California Attorney General,
pointed out in legal comments, the terminal would pose serious safety
and health threats to Benicia and to residents along the rail line.
Momentum is also building against another crude-by-rail proposal up for
consideration further south in San Luis Obispo County.
These victories show the power of local communities to stop Big Oil in its tracks.
The battle, however, is far from over: Valero is still trying to push
forward with its rail terminal, and WesPac’s proposed marine terminal
would have significant impacts on the fragile San Francisco Bay Delta
and nearby residents. In fact, WesPac’s plans may still include the
renovation of long-dormant storage tanks to stockpile large volumes of
volatile crude oil, even though those tanks are literally a stone’s
throw from homes, churches, and a school.
Some critics have used the boom in crude oil trains as evidence that we should allow more pipelines. They offer the false choice of risk from pipelines or risk from oil trains. The truth is more sinister. Big Oil wants more of both. Pipelines and rail serve different geographic areas
and often carry different types of oil. The problem is that both forms
of transportation have risks, and both bring fossil fuels perilously
close to our communities. Clean energy investments do the opposite: they
eliminate the dangerous risks of spills and bomb trains, while cutting
It’s time our elected leaders follow the example of communities
across the country by saying “no” to Big Oil and “yes” to clean
solutions that accelerate fuel efficiency, electric vehicles, clean
fuels, and renewable energy such as solar and wind.
Franz A. Matzner is associate director of government affairs
for the Natural Resources Defense Council. His policy background
includes energy, climate, and forestry. He previously held the position
of senior policy analyst for agriculture and the environment at
Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS). Matzner graduated Phi Beta Kappa from
the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author of the NRDC report “Safe
At Home: Making the Federal Fire Safety Budget Work for Communities.”